Mountain Skills: Karl Birkeland on 20 years of education, safety and snow science

Karl Birkeland, 51, is a longtime avalanche forecaster and director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Montana. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on 20 years of education, safety and snow science.

Mountain Skills: Making Better Observations

Turn to someone you trust—a more experienced friend or maybe a guide—and you’ll likely find out that they don’t dig too many pits, and they certainly never trust their life with the information gained in one snow pit. This disconnect can be confusing—after all, we learn to dig pits early in our education, but in reality most skiers don’t bother. Here’s when and how to dig to get the most information.

Mountain Skills: How to prepare for avalanche conditions in unfamiliar locations

It’s October, and you’ve already booked a hut week in the Monashees, a yurt trip in the Sawtooths or a weekend in the Wasatch. But how will you know what conditions will be like at, say, the end of February? And, more importantly, how can you be familiar with the snowpack and deal with avalanche conditions when you arrive in an unfamiliar backcountry zone?

Mountain Skills: Cutting a Cornice

Dropping a cornice onto a slope can be an effective way to see if it will slide, simulating the weight of a skier on the snow. Here’s a video demonstration of proper cornice cutting technique.

Mountain Skills: Ski Cutting a Slope

By skiing quickly across a slope you can test stability without hanging yourself too far out there. Here’s a video that demonstrates proper ski-cutting technique.